India, a country with 1.4 billion people, has been gripped by a deadly second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. But even as its healthcare system gasps for breath and its crematoriums burn with thousands of funeral pyres, its leaders are scrambling to censor the internet.
Last week, India’s IT ministry ordered Twitter to block more than 50 tweets from being seen in the country. Days later, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Times of India reported that Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube had also taken down posts that were critical of the government. Over the last week, ordinary people running WhatsApp and Telegram groups to help people find medical oxygen and hospital beds have complained of threats demanding that they shut them down, and police in the state of Uttar Pradesh filed a complaint against a man who asked for medical oxygen for his dying grandfather on Twitter, claiming that he was “spreading misleading information.” On Wednesday, posts with the hashtag #ResignModi disappeared from Facebook for a few hours. And even though the company restored it and claimed that the Indian government didn’t ask for it to be censored, it didn’t provide details about why the hashtag had been blocked.
These incidents — which happened within days of each other as criticism of India’s government reached a fever pitch — highlight the shrinking space for dissent in the world’s largest democracy. As social unrest against an increasingly authoritarian government grows, it has cracked down on social media, one of the last free spaces remaining for citizens to express their opinions. New regulations have given the government broad powers to restrict content, forcing US tech platforms, which count India as a key market, to strike a balance between growth and free expression.
This isn’t the first time that an Indian government has attempted to censor speech online. In 2012, before Modi came to power, India’s United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government ordered internet service providers to block more than a dozen Twitter accounts, including those belonging to people from the right wing.
In February, India’s government ordered Twitter to take down more than 250 tweets that criticized how the government handled protests over new agricultural laws. Although Twitter blocked most of the accounts, it unblocked the ones belonging to journalists, activists, and politicians, despite jail threats from the Indian government.
“India’s current internet censorship ties directly into social criticism of the government’s policies.”
“But now, there is an increase in the frequency and scale of the censorship that is being demanded,” Apar Gupta, director of digital rights organization Internet Freedom Foundation, told BuzzFeed News. “India’s current internet censorship ties directly into social criticism of the government’s policies.”
Over the weekend, India’s IT ministry attempted to explain its reasoning in an unsigned Word document it shared with the press, and which was accessed by BuzzFeed News.
The “[g]overnment welcomes criticisms, genuine requests for help as well as suggestions in the collective fight against COVID19,” the note said. “But it is necessary to take action against those users who are misusing social media during this grave humanitarian crisis for unethical purposes.”
The ministry cited a handful of the 53 tweets that it ordered to be blocked as examples of problematic content. There are four tweets that call the coronavirus pandemic a conspiracy theory, and four more containing “old and unrelated visuals of patients and dead bodies.” At least two of these four instances are genuine examples of misinformation, fact-checkers from Indian outlets Alt News and Newschecker who examined the images told BuzzFeed News.
In an example of how thin the line between removing dangerous rumors and censoring political expression can be, the ministry offered no explanations for any other content ordered down. A BuzzFeed News examination of the rest of the restricted tweets showed that at least some of them appeared to make legitimate criticisms of India’s prime minister. One of the restricted tweets, for instance, belongs to Moloy Ghatak, a minister from the state of West Bengal. He accuses Modi of mismanaging the pandemic and exporting vaccines when there’s a shortage in India.
Neither Ghatak nor the IT ministry responded to requests for comment
One of the tweets restricted in India belonged to Pawan Khera, a national spokesperson of the Indian National Congress, India’s main opposition party. The tweet, which was posted on April 12, shows pictures from the Kumbh Mela, a religious Hindu gathering held earlier this month during which millions of people bathed in a river even as coronavirus cases were rapidly rising. Both ordinary Indians and the global press have criticized India’s government for allowing the gathering to happen. In his tweet, Khera contrasts India’s lack of reaction to the Kumbh Mela with an incident last year, when members of a Muslim gathering were accused of spreading the coronavirus when the country had fewer than 1,000 confirmed cases.
“Why was my tweet withheld?” Khera told BuzzFeed News. “That’s the answer I need from the government of India.”
“What laws am I violating? What rumors am I spreading? Where did I cause panic? These are the questions I need answered,” said Khera, who sent a legal request to the IT ministry and Twitter this week.
“If I don’t hear back from them, I’ll take them to court.”
“If I don’t hear back from them, I’ll take them to court,” he said. “I need legal relief to protect my freedom of expression.”
Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.
Experts said the ministry’s note didn’t provide sufficient justification for ordering social media platforms to censor posts. “Since when did the government start sending takedown notices for misinformation?” asked Pratik Sinha, editor of Alt News. “And why have just these tweets been cited [out of 53]?”
Social media platforms haven’t been the only places seeing a crackdown. Over the last few weeks, volunteer-run networks of WhatsApp and Telegram groups amplifying pleas for help, and getting people access to medical oxygen, lifesaving drugs, and hospital beds have sprung up around the country. But over the last few days, some of them have disbanded. According to a report on Indian news website the Quint, volunteers running these groups received calls from people claiming to be from the Delhi Police asking them to shut them down.
The Delhi Police denied this, but by then, people were spooked. A network of WhatsApp groups run by more than 300 volunteers disbanded days ago even though they didn’t get a call. “We decided not to take a chance,” the founder of this group, who wished to remain anonymous, told BuzzFeed News. “[I felt] frustration and anger.”
Experts said one of the biggest problems in this situation is a lack of transparency — from both the government and the platforms. Last week, Twitter revealed the details of the IT ministry’s order on Lumen, a Harvard University database that lets companies disclose takedown notices from governments around the world. But Facebook, Instagram, and Google haven’t commented on alleged censorship in one of their largest markets, either to the public or to BuzzFeed News when asked.
“They didn’t even put out a public statement about this,” said the Internet Freedom Foundation’s Gupta. “The primary duty of transparency lies with the government, but there has been absolutely no transparency by the platforms.”